Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2003
Issue No. 647
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Arafat vs Abbas

The tug of war between Arafat and Abbas has been contained for the moment, but as Khalid Amayreh reports, there are no guarantees it will last


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Activists of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) were forcibly prevented from walking between the West Bank towns of Nablus and Tel. The road has been closed by the Israeli army
Folowing mediation efforts by high-level Fatah figures, the latest crisis between Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Prime his Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been resolved. However, there are no guarantees that "differences" won't resurface at anytime.

According to insiders in Fatah, the mainstream PLO movement headed by Arafat, the crisis stemmed essentially from a realisation by both Arafat and Abbas that neither of them is given "enough power" to carry out the tasks entrusted to them.

Arafat had only reluctantly agreed to cede some of his powers to Abbas when the latter was appointed as prime minister under international - mainly American - pressure a few months ago. Then the power-sharing arrangements between the "elected" president and the "appointed" prime minister were far from clear as they didn't draw precise lines between the powers and responsibilities accorded to thw two.

The problem lingered and under the pressure of daily events, especially harsh Israeli repression, was left dormant as long as it was possible. Last week, the problem resurfaced, straining the chronically uneasy relationship between Arafat and Abbas.

Arafat, who has been increasingly feeling that the carpet is being pulled from under his feet, has been insisting on retaining his basic powers as stipulated in the "Basic Law", including retaining control over the Palestinian national security forces and deciding overall national policy, as well as overseeing negotiations with Israel.

For his part, Abbas argues that he should be empowered to have control over the day-to-day security affairs of the PA without any negative interference or interruption by Arafat and his loyalists.

Without such powers, he argues, he won't be able to carry out his responsibilities as prime minister.

"He (Abbas) wants to be prime minister and not Arafat's shadow," said one Palestinian minister on condition of anonymity.

One of the key differences between Arafat and Abbas has centered on the overlap between the responsibilities of the "interior ministry" and those of Muhammed Dahlan, State Minister of Security Affairs.

Arafat had insisted all along that Hani Al-Hasan, one of his loyalists, retain the interior ministry portfolio.

Abbas, encouraged by American and international backing, rejected Arafat's position and insisted instead that he be given control over internal security.

Eventually, a vaguely-worded compromise was reached whereby the interior ministry portfolio remained vacant while Muhammed Dahlan was appointed as "state minister" of security affairs.

The boundaries and limitations of Dahlan's responsibilities and authorities were never specified. This in turn has paved the way for frictions, which can potentially evolve into collisions, between Dahlan's men and Arafat's loyalists who are still in control of the Palestinian security apparatus.

Furthermore, Arafat has apparently sought to reassert himself as "the president," in part as a defensive reflex against incessant Israeli incitement against him.

This incitement reached unprecedented levels this week when several Israeli officials, including Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, declared that the Palestinian leader should "either be killed or deported."

Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon missed no chance to vilify Arafat and accuse him of impeding and seeking to undermine the Abbas government and consequently undermine the peace process. Sharon also urged EU states to boycott Arafat, claiming such a step would accelerate the peace process.

The real Israeli goal behind this spate of vilification against the Palestinian leader has nothing to do with any perceived infatuation with Abbas. Rather, it stems from a certain conviction on the part of the Israeli political-military establishment that Abbas would be willing to give far-reaching concessions pertaining to such central issues as Jerusalem, the refugees and Jewish settlements.

Now, Arafat and the bulk of the Fatah leadership, while dismissing these "Israeli whims," could no longer hide their apprehension.

How can they guarantee that no foul-play takes place? The answer is by keeping Arafat in ultimate control of the Palestinian National Security Council, a body controlled that is already controlled by him and which oversees negotiations with Israel.

To further assert Fatah's predominant influence over the PA, Arafat last week appointed Hani Al-Hasan, the former minister of interior, as General Commissioner of Fatah.

The purpose of this appointment, which PA sources said had nothing to do with the row between Arafat and Abbas, seems to be making sure that Fatah remains solidly behind Arafat in any future dispute between the Palestinian leader and his prime minister.

The seemingly tentative agreement between Arafat and Abbas sorted out presidential and premiership powers according to the "Basic Law".

"The Dispute is over, and things are alright," Abbas told reporters Monday following the "reconciliation meeting" with Arafat arranged by Information Minister Nabil Amr, Arafat Advisor Dr. Saieb Ureikat and Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qrei.

According to the Ramallah based newspaper, Al-Ayyam, the formula agreed upon by Arafat and Abbas endorses the reference and follow-up of the negotiating process through the Higher Committee of Negotiations, which is headed by Arafat and includes the prime minister.

Moreover, the two men agreed to appoint Finance Minister Salam Fayyad as a new committee member. It was not immediately clear if Fayyad had accepted the appointment.

In addition, the agreement stipulated that Arafat should chair the security committee, which also includes the prime minister, the state minister of security affairs, in addition to various security chiefs.

All in all, the two sides "reconfirmed" anew the distinguished historical relationship between the president and the prime minister. Arafat re-confirmed his support of the government of Abbas, whereas Abbas re-confirmed the role of Arafat as the leader and elected president of the Palestinian people.

During the meeting, Abbas declared "I fully support Arafat," and Arafat replied, "I fully support the government."

The most important clause of the agreement between Abbas and Arafat was the fact that both agreed that they would refer any future disputes over powers not spelled out in the "Basic Law" to a new committee made up of four high-ranking Fatah figures: Ahmed Qrei and Saeb Ureikat, as well as Akram Haniyya, a political advisor to Arafat and editor of al-Ayyam newspaper, and Ghassan el Shakaa, the mayor of Nablus. All four are known Arafat loyalists.

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